How to Civilize Clashes in Clashes of Civilizations

About 20 years ago Bernard Lewis wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” The article can be found here. In that article Lewis cites a number of grievances Muslims have against the United States and the West. The article was an early warning designed to explain to Westerners, who were naïve and hence shocked at the intensity of Muslim rage, what it was about Muslim culture, religion, and politics – as they came into contact with Western culture – that made them so angry.

Lewis listed a number of offenses dealing with racism, colonialism, arrogance, and the Muslim Manichaean view of the world which organizes things into the house of Islam and those who are not Muslim. The offense of the West most widely objected to was imperialism. And the term usually took on a religious significance associated with the Crusades and an attack on Islam rather than the West’s more secular political interests. Lewis goes on to make a compelling case for the seemingly confused response to imperialism. That is, the United States has never occupied Muslim land and does not have a history of military or material oppression. True, the United States is arrogant enough but, unlike the Soviet Union, we do not rule over large Muslim populations and have no history of violently quelling disturbances. Still, the US is seen as the main cultural and economic threat; it is American capitalism and democracy that is an authentic alternative and must be challenged.

The US support for Israel also figures into this negative attitude toward the West. How do we do something about this attitude? How do we begin to reach across the divide that separates the Muslim world from the West? This is of course a hideously complex question but I continue to believe that an effort towards reconciliation, conflict management, or any sort of accommodation that falls short of war and military action is necessary. One international relations theory suggests that cultures that share common institutions rarely fight one another. This is the neoconservative position responsible for the aggressive spread of democracy. If Islam would just adopt and construct democratic institutions, so the theory goes, differences between us that lead to conflict would dissolve. But what about techniques designed to maintain differences but still establish peaceful relationships. These are communication techniques.

There is one well-known communication and conflict strategy that might be helpful here. And that is to confront your differences and raise the level of abstraction such that you construct a wider circle of inclusion. Another common way of putting it is to be concerned with interests rather than issues. So, two cultures might argue over resources (an issue) or identities (an issue), but both cultures might share an “interest” in peace. Both sides share and include one another in an interest in peace. The interest in peace as a higher-order abstraction actually works very well for many potential conflicting cultures in the world. Many cultures would rather have peace than argue and fight over particular issues. It does not work well, however, for difficult, deep-rooted, intractable conflicts. So, simply going to Muslims and Westerners and telling them that “peace” is more important than their particular issues always appears naïve and usually has little or no effect.

But there are other ways to work on common interests that make for this wider circle of inclusion. The two sides have to find higher-order interest that can accommodate their differences on particular issues that separate them. Take the example of the Temple mount and the holy sites that define it. The site is sacred to both Israelis and Palestinians and the control and administration of the sites is a serious point of contention. But the two sides can come to some sort of joint acceptance and administration of the site if they define it as a holy place that does not have national implications. There are rabbis who have written that the Temple mount belongs to the world because it’s statues and symbols do not belong to one nation. The Temple mount and its holy sites are the seat of justice and divine law, not a seat of national law. Its essence is to represent humanity. Muslims, on the other hand, could make progress toward a more enlightened understanding of Judaism. There is certainly a historical tradition of Muslims excepting Jews as people of the book. This does not mean that Jews were not considered second-class citizens because of course they were not Muslim, but there have been long periods of tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and Jews. And, a religious Muslim will argue the difference between Jews, whose religious revelation they accept, and Zionism whose history and existence they reject.

We should not forget that historically Muslims and Christians had a more troublesome relationship than Muslims and Jews. Moreover, Christian fed anti-Semitism was worse than Muslim anti-Semitism. And given that Jewish-Christian relations have improved considerably through dialogue and knowledge of one another, there is no reason to think that the same cannot be true for Muslims and Jews. Another way to enlarge the circle of inclusion is to refuse to let organizations like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda define the problem. Most regimes in the Muslim world have adopted practical attitudes toward Israel and Jews, and it is even possible to find Koranic justification for a practical attitude toward Israel. The deliberative will referred to in the last post should be encouraged by the possibility of productive communication in a genuine global public sphere.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 2, 2011, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on How to Civilize Clashes in Clashes of Civilizations.

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